It would seem that there has never been a better time to dust off the cinematic relics of 15 to 20 years ago, given this year’s sudden deluge of long-deferred sequels: “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Zoolander 2,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.” Did I say better? I meant the precise opposite. With the singular exception of Pixar’s stirring and imaginative “Finding Dory,” every one of these dubious exercises in cultural nostalgia has been an unmitigated letdown — the sort of stinker that invites you to question your fondness for the original property, to say nothing of the taste and sanity of the people exploiting it.
If nothing else, “Blair Witch,” a so-so new entry in the found-footage freakout subgenre initiated nearly two decades ago by “The Blair Witch Project,” suggests that gimmicky franchise resuscitation is not strictly the domain of the major studios. But to be fair, it’s also one of the few examples of this dispiriting trend that does, from time to time, elicit your admiration for the cheeky inventiveness of the filmmaking instincts on display.
In thrillers like “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” the director Adam Wingard has proven himself a nimble and energetic devotee of the horror canon, and he approaches his source with an appreciable mixture of reverence, enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek humor. Throughout “Blair Witch” you can sense him and his regular screenwriter, Simon Barrett, trying to update “The Blair Witch Project’s” mock-documentary concept for a slicker, technologically savvier era of post-millennial digital filmmaking, while still retaining some semblance of the rough-and-ready DIY sensibility that made the original film a pioneering indie classic.
Made on a shoestring budget by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, and largely improvised by its talented, very-much-in-character actors, “The Blair Witch Project” mischievously presented itself as the recovered footage of three documentary filmmakers, led by Heather Donahue (the name of the actress and the character), during their final days wandering the woods near Burkittsville, Md.
One of the central figures in the new “Blair Witch” is Heather’s much, much younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), who has been obsessed with learning what happened to his sister ever since her disappearance nearly two decades earlier. (The events of the 2000 sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” have been wisely relegated to the ash heap of movie history.)
Now James and his girlfriend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), along with their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), take cameras in hand and head into the forest, accompanied by two friendly but suspicious-looking locals, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who have promised to lead the way.
By this point you may notice that “Blair Witch” has already doubled the original film’s character count, the first sign of a general more-is-more inflation policy that applies across the board — narratively, aesthetically and certainly financially. (The film was made for roughly $5 million, about 100 times the 1999 film’s budget, but still a pittance by Hollywood standards.)
While “The Blair Witch Project” teased us with distant rumors of witchcraft, torture and a serial killer named Rustin Parr, “Blair Witch” establishes a much more concrete mythology at the outset, casting aside the power of suggestion in favor of a strategy of blatant foreshadowing. The two cameras used in the original — one shooting in color on digital video, the other shooting on black-and-white 16-millimeter film, which crucially allowed the audience to delineate perspectives — have been replaced by a well-stocked arsenal of recording equipment, including a drone camera whose nifty aerial perspective will, it might be hoped, keep James and his friends from getting too lost.
Whatever. Of course they get lost repeatedly, turning every nighttime potty break into a chance to be assaulted by creepy noises and flashlight-abetted jump scares. One character suffers a gruesome injury that refuses to heal, briefly raising the possibility that the gang has entered Cronenbergian body-horror territory. Tents fly into the air of their own accord. The characters’ sense of time becomes fragmented and warped. Ominous wooden symbols are strung up outside their tents in such ridiculous numbers, you’re not sure whether to run screaming from the Blair Witch or award her an arts-and-crafts merit badge.
The improvements in filmmaking technique may offer a subliminal commentary on an era in which every teenager is expected to be a YouTube star. But the increased camera coverage and the smoother cutting — courtesy of cinematographer Robby Baumgartner and editor Louis Cioffi — don’t make “Blair Witch” feel scarier or more realistic, just sadistic and slightly desperate. The more seamless the visual style, the more clearly the dramatic cracks and fissures begin to show.
The “scariest movie ever made” claims that greeted “The Blair Witch Project” after its storied 1999 Sundance premiere may have been misguided and overblown, but the movie remains a harrowing exercise in psychological tension and a conceptual tour de force. A near-perfect execution of an ingeniously airtight premise, it immersed us so plausibly in its characters’ mental breakdown that it all but ceased to matter whether it was the Blair Witch toying with them or their own shredded nerves.
What made the film so unnerving was the sense that it didn’t seem especially interested in scaring us; set at the intersection of human subjectivity and Mother Nature’s pitiless indifference, it was, in some respects, an exemplary demonstration of the banality of horror. And like so many pioneering works of cinema, it also played like an eerie dispatch from the future — indirectly anticipating a reality when we would all be wielding cameras 24-7, endlessly recording, manipulating and sharing the movie of our lives.
That reality has come to pass in “Blair Witch,” a film that, unlike its predecessor, seems hellbent on getting under your skin by any means necessary, even if it means undermining its own vérité premise with calculated set-pieces and skillful but inevitably self-conscious performances.
Wingard’s movie, for all its abundant mischief, doesn’t trust the power of its own illusion. You can see these woods a lot more clearly now, and what you see is that you’ve been here before.
MPAA rating: R, for language, terror and some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release